By Victoria Magar
The history of Bungoma cannot be told without mentioning the Chetambe Fort, where legend has it that hundreds of legendary Bukusu clan members died, at the same time, some were captured during the war between the white men and the natives in 1895.
It is believed that this was the site, in 1895, of a last-ditch stand by the Bukusu group of the Luhya tribe against the miscellaneous line-up of a British retaliatory expedition, which had enrolled Ugandan, Sudanese, Maasai, and even other Luhya troops.
An inevitable massacre, in this case by the deadly guns, took place, with negligible losses on the attackers’ side and equally few survivors among the defenders. According to residents, the Bukusu were all inside their walled fort at the top when the white men struck. However, despite the killings, the Bukusu resistance against the white colonialists continued right up until independence.
It is named after the owner of the land on top of the hill, Chetambe Ifile, where the natives had built a fort of stonewalls known as ‘Olukoba lwa chetambe’ 12 feet deep and 12 feet above the land with six gates; four major gates, and two minor gates.
‘Olukoba lwa Chetambe’ was a four hectares’ fort built by the Tachoni community who lived in the land on the hill and was used for hiding in times of war. Speaking to CGN, Mzee Erick Wambasi, a Tachoni elder from Chetambe Hill, said that the communities around the hill lived in the strong fort together for safety during the pre and colonial era.
He said that Chetambe was from the Avangachi clan, a community that practised farming and livestock keeping. Their leadership hierarchy included spiritual and divine leaders, rain makers’ farmers, teachers, among others. Wambasi reiterated that Chetambe also helped the community build the strong fort with two gates, one in the east and the main entrance on the southern part where the community’s animals and people lived in safety.
The People who lived in the fort that was strongly build with huge walls were of different tribes, but the Tachoni mainly dominated it. At the time, most communities lived in peace and co-existence until the Bukusu community escaped from Lumboka area after clashing with the revered throne of King Nabongo Mumia of the Wanga sub-tribe of the Luhya community.
“The white men living in Nabongo’s Kingdom were selling firearms in exchange for four cows per firearm to the natives. It came a time when they took firearms to Lumboka area that was dominated by the Bukusu community. After the exchange was done, Bukusu men went after the men and took their cattle back yet still retained the firearms,” said Mzee Wambasi.
In the commotion, he said, three men from the Wanga community died. Still, a few who managed to escape took word back to the kingdom that Bukusu men had breached the trade agreement, a move that angered the White men who in turn rode on horses and went to see where the tragedy had occurred and confirmed the killings.
“Around August 1894, the Tachoni community welcomed members of the Bukusu community escaping from the wrath of the British during the rainy season, and there was very long grass at the time, and so it was easy for the white men to track them down following their footpath,” he added.
The Bukusus did not heed warnings of impending attacks, but the Tachonis did so and left. “Immediately after the Tachoni left, the White man arrived and put up a gunfire claiming to have followed the people who had conned them their firearms, and since the owners of the land were not there, they decided to open fire,” explained Wambasi.
It is believed that, during the first round of the fight, the natives won against the white men following the use of the holes above the fort that helped them see their opponents well. However, a few days later, the white men decided to bomb up ‘olukoba lwa chetambe’ to end the war commanded by General Hobbley, the then district commissioner of the Elgon Nyanza region, where 37 Tachoni men that had remained behind in the fort and over 450 Bukusu men died.
Chetambe did not die in the blast, as he escaped through the back gate and relocated to Magemo area, where he lived until he died in 1906. Before his death, aged 84 years, the whole of Bungoma had recognized him as their hero, deserving a place in their history. Today, Lumboka has very few features left because decades of cultivation have erased all the walls and trenches.
However, a visit to the fort now covered in bushes reveals the intense rivalry with which the communities fought to outshine each other in the resistance to colonial rule,to get to the Chetambe Fort, one has to drive uphill from Webuye via Lugulu on a circuitous route of around 15 kilometres. From the top of the hill, one can see Webuye Town in detail, identifying each building, and also admire the beautiful Nabuyole Falls on River Nzoia.
Although under cultivation by descendants of Chetambe, the fort retains some of its features, including a 12ft deep trench, which covers four acres, the size of four football fields.
The late Cabinet minister Jeremiah Nyagah visited Chetambe in the early 1980s and planted a tree, which stands today. The Government intended to build a monument to honour the defenders, but the idea came to nought.
Meanwhile, the Tachoni community under the Tachoni council of elders led by their chairman Wasilwa Wekesa has since sued the British government for compensating and killing their people at Chetambe Fort,through lawyers Lumatete Muchai and Mutakhi Kangie, the elders are also seeking compensation for their Tachoni community’s loss of land in North Lugari that include Naitiri and Ndalu and South Lugari that include Lugari, Likuyani, and Chepsaita that were Tachoni settlement land.
Wasilwa said that the compensation would go to the 36 houses of the Tachoni community that the white men torched down during the invasion at Chetambe.